Violent attacks against Muslims perceived to be carriers of the virus have been reported in different parts of the country. There have been reports of meetings in closed communities discussing the ban on access to Muslims. Elsewhere, youth gangs have occupied village entry points to prevent the entry of Muslims. Muslim vendors were also asked to stop selling on the streets.
There has been a sudden increase in hashtags and Islamophobic messages on various social media platforms accusing Muslims of deliberately spreading the virus. A new term, “corona jihad”, has been coined to describe this conspiracy. Videos of Muslims spitting vegetables and fruit, licking plates and smearing surfaces with their saliva are widely circulated.
It all started when the news spread that people who had attended a large gathering of Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim missionary movement, on its premises in New Delhi, had tested positive for the new coronavirus. People have traveled from outside India to attend this event and it is suspected that they may have brought the virus into the congregation.
The Tablighi Jamaat was blamed for hosting the event in mid-March, ignoring the threat of the virus spreading. Very soon reports began to pour in from different parts of India, suggesting that the greatest number of positive cases could be traced back to the event.
This has become a justification for the government to create a separate column for Tablighi Jamaat cases in its daily briefings. This gave the impression that the Muslim movement is the main culprit. Since it is difficult for many to tell the difference between Tablighis and other Muslims, all Muslims are now considered to be potential carriers of this virus and are therefore rejected and hated.
But some have questioned the methodology of COVID-19 tests and reports. Saugato Datta, a behavior and development economist, says highlighting the large proportion of overall positive cases related to the New Delhi event is misleading, as authorities did not aggressively seek and test people other gatherings like this.
“This is essentially a sampling bias: given that the people in this group have been tested at very high rates and the overall tests are weak, it is not surprising that a large proportion of overall positive to be attributed to this group, “said Datta.
As some have pointed out, the Tablighi Jamaat event was just one of many religious and non-religious congregations that took place in mid-March. At that time, the Indian government tried to minimize the gravity of the situation, allowing Parliament to function and allowing nearly 1.5 million people to enter the country without proper filtering between January and March. The guests of the Tablighi Jamaat represented a tiny fraction of this number.
Despite this, the Indian media has launched a campaign rich in decibels on this subject. One newspaper even went so far as to publish a caricature describing the coronavirus as a terrorist in Muslim attire.
Likewise, social media is full of publications on what many see as a Muslim conspiracy. One tweet that had about 2,000 retweets before being deleted for violating Twitter rules included a caricature of a cartoonish Muslim labeled “corona Jihad” trying to push a Hindu off a cliff.
These feelings were also fueled through official channels. Border security officers said there was a conspiracy for people from a particular community (read Muslim) to infiltrate the porous borders of India across Nepal in order to spread the infection here.
Even the government of India is adding to this campaign in a very subtle way. He recently sent a note to the government of the state of West Bengal expressing concern over the strict enforcement of the lock in certain areas. He mentioned seven localities in the state, six of which are clearly dominated by Muslims.
Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, reacted very strongly to the directive and asked the central government not to use this crisis to continue its common program.
The enthusiasm and enthusiasm with which this anti-Muslim campaign was waged is a deeply disturbing phenomenon.
It adds to the already existing conspiracy theories about Muslims waiting behind the scenes, reproducing at a breakneck pace to outdo Hindus and “pollute” Hindu land. Since the community was already seen as conspiring to inflict damage on “Mother India”, it was easy to “establish” that Muslims would seek to infect Hindus with coronaviruses to destroy them.
This campaign not only fueled existing anti-Muslim sentiments, but also slowed down the momentum gained by a protest movement, which was demonstrating against the increasingly precarious situation of the community. For months before the epidemic, Muslims and their allies across India had protested the new citizenship law and other executive exercises like the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register, which were considered as discriminatory against the community.
While undermining political efforts to end government-sponsored discrimination, the epidemic and the accompanying anti-Muslim campaign can lead to even greater ostracization of the community.
Muslims are barely present in the formal sector of the economy and their numbers are insignificant in public services. The largest active population of Muslims is in the informal sector. This campaign is pushing to make them “untouchable” for non-Muslims, which would certainly exclude them from various economic activities.
Muslims have been deprived of their political rights, now this campaign can break them economically and make their survival impossible.
It is disheartening to see the world silently watching this continuing persecution of the largest religious minority in India. This would be a dark new chapter in the creation of a new type of apartheid against Muslims in the world’s largest democracy.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.